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My Quixotic quest made the school newspaper—I’m published

January 4, 2011

As a former newspaper advisor, and college newspaper photographer, I still read every word in the school newspaper with great care, and occasionally, what I read spurs me to respond with my own letter to the editor. This letter to the editor was just published in the December issue (It’s always interesting to see how much space this takes up on the page).

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The paper also published a response from the editor, side-by-side with my letter:

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As I read this response, I was troubled more than when I read the original editorial. When I read this response, I see a student who feels the need to read his resume back to me to prove he’s not stuck on a shallow path of engagement, and then reveals he’s stuck to a very fixed view of his future with this quote:

Also, if I want to get into certain colleges I HAVE to do well in EVERY class or the colleges won’t accept me.

You can see that college still is at the complete forefront of this students’ mind, which I suppose is true for many of our students. But the idea that you have to be perfect to get into college is patently false. I’ll let Cal Newport tell you how to get into Stanford with B’s on your transcript, but I also wonder if every college sounds the same, as this student seems to claim, and we know that the average acceptance rate of the over 4000 colleges in the US is 66%, why worry? I mean surely you’ll get into some college, right?

But this isn’t the story many of my students believe. They are stuck in the mindset that if you don’t get into to 1 of 25 colleges that are uber-selective, you have failed. And the only way to get into one of those elite colleges, they think, is to take on the trial to survive high school—load up on APs, extracurriculars, SAT tutoring, always aiming for perfection in every extrinsic measure of student achievement, and fearing that one wrong step—a B+, a or a cut from the varsity team, spells doom. They don’t see that you can bypass all this stress simply by focusing learning—really engaging with adults, embracing mistakes and making a difference in the world today, rather than thinking you have to wait until you’ve got a degree from some prestigeous college to change the world. What’s more, when students focus on this alternate path, with its intrinsic measures of success: learning, engagement, happiness, making a difference in the world, they often end up doing better by extrinsic measures of success (college placement) than the would have done by running on the stress treadmill.

But this student also brings up some good criticisms of our curriculum. Even though we are a huge school (compared to my previous schools), our curriculum is rather fixed, particularly in science. I can see how it’s possible for students to feel like they have few options in deciding what to study or what level to study (since students need recommendations to take honors or AP courses) in the sciences, especially before senior year (when many students elect to take no science at all). Our decision to encourage students to take AP as a first year course only probably exacerbates this further (only a tiny handful of students take AP chemistry or biology as a 2nd year course), since once you complete studying chemistry or biology at the AP level, there really isn’t a way for students to follow up with a second year course. At previous schools, when students enjoyed a first year course, they had the option to follow up with the AP, and this probably gave a sense of more choice, but it limits students from taking as many APs.

So who’s to blame? Surely not this student who can’t even recognize the sarcasm in my tone, or see outside his naturally self-centered teenage world view, and I can’t say my world view was all that different when I was that age. More importantly, how can we change things?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    January 4, 2011 9:31 pm

    “But the idea that you have to be perfect to get into college is patently false.”

    I agree but who has lead this senior to believe this? The adults, media, society in his/her life. He/she truly doesn’t know any different because they are a child and they’ve been on this treadmill for a long time. It’s all he/she knows. So I agree with what you are saying but I think it’s directed at the wrong person.

    I’m enjoying your blog. I especially enjoyed the post about “feedback” when you didn’t really intend to develop such a large following. I understand because of the changes and pressures we have felt as we left the public school system to begin homeschooling our young children. We are designing the new path you reference for our children. It’s amazing how people like to criticize our decision but at the same time can incessantly complain about the system that is educating their own children. Most do nothing to change the rat race but complain.

    It’s been very daunting at times to step away from mainstream beliefs to work on this venture of homeschooling. I’m 40. To expect a teenager to step away from mainstream beliefs and forge their own path, when it’s all they’ve ever known and they’ve essentially been brainwashed to believe it’s “crunch time”, is a tall order.

    Keep up the good work and good writing!!

  2. January 8, 2011 8:33 am

    I did get a very nice email recently from parent of a former student who read my letter in the newspaper and wrote:

    Hello, I’m [redacted] , [redacted]’s dad. I was reading the Bi-Line because of [redacted]’s article and came across your letter. Thank you for caring! You are an incredible inspiration and have had a profound affect on my son! Your letter clearly portrays your passion to be a teacher. Never let up, your are changing lives. As a parent, I have the greatest respect for your professional stewardship and remain grateful for the contribution you have made to my son.

    This reminds me again, along with Jill’s comment above, that parents really can be our allies in this struggle. Very few parents actually parent from helicopters—most just want their children to be happy and well adjusted.

    Here’s another great piece from the NYT blog: the choice, about a father coming to terms with the idea that his son won’t be attending an ivy league college.

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